For insights into what's working and what's not, what's on the horizon and what's passé, we generally look to industry leaders for guidance. Sales is no different. In these Sales Leader Spotlights, our goal is to explore the thinking behind smart sales strategies, straight from interviews with sales leaders.
After all, the history of sales training teaches us that sales, as a profession, has taken full advantage of what has worked in other disciplines. Perhaps these sales leader spotlights will teach us about what works and what doesn't. You be the judge.
To that end, let's get to the first of these Sales Leader Spotlights. Let me introduce you to Bernie Brenner, a co-founder of TrueCar, a publicly held company and friend to every car dealer in America and advocate for all car buyers.
I caught up with him in March 2015 and, in this one-on-one interview with Bernie, you'll learn some sales lessons he's applied thoughout his career.
Bernie Brenner A Sales Guy at Heart
“Pursuing sales growth can help improve your top-line revenue in the short-term,” says Bernie Brenner, co-founder and executive vice president of TrueCar.com, but in the long-term, the business won’t change significantly.” Why? “Because your model, your growth strategy, and your tactics are the same. The only difference is that the pace changes.”
Brenner, who was a co-founder of TrueCar, Inc., is responsible for TrueCar’s growth strategy. TrueCar is the negotiation-free car buying and selling mobile marketplace, giving consumers transparent insight into what others paid, as well as access to guaranteed savings off the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) from TrueCar-certified dealers.
What can really drive business growth, through sales, is business development, he says. In order to achieve transformational sales acceleration you need strategic deal-flow. “Business development needs to be part of any sales plan,” says Brenner. And yet, business development is “the polar opposite of sales,” he says.
According to Brenner, sales is about generating revenue by finding a buyer for the products or services your company offers. It’s transactional, he explains. In contrast, in his view, business development is about partnering to sell to a third customer. “It’s about proposing a partnership in pursuit of bigger opportunities for both companies.”
To do that, smaller companies – those that are not the dominant players in their industries – need to partner with a company that is the major player in theirs. “Partnering with a larger company changes the strategic business landscape by providing you with a distinct advantage I call the sumo advantage (which also happens to be the title of Brenner’s bestselling strategy book, The Sumo Advantage).
Why would Goliath be Interested in Partnering with David?
While dominant players certainly have the upper hand at the outset, potential partners must bring some capability or advantage to the table in order to interest the larger company in collaborating. The two ventures must be bigger and stronger together than they are individually.
Think about the legend of David and Goliath. Goliath certainly had size and strength, but David had agility and training, not to mention, some would argue, the partner-to-beat-all-partners, God. In the end, with the help of his partner and his skill, he took down the giant.
Creating an insurmountable entity is the opportunity smaller would-be partners need to present to the major organizations they want to be aligned with, explains Brenner. They need to explain the benefits of partnering to pursue a market the larger venture is not currently tapping into. That’s exactly what TrueCar did when approaching an insurance giant.
Helping a Partner Envision what Could Be
TrueCar painted a picture of what the partnership could look like, and what the advantages would be to both companies in order to seal the deal. Then the TrueCar sales team got to work building a dealer network that would bring business to both companies.
Business development is what propelled TrueCar. “TrueCar would not be around without its early alignment with sumos. It’s what can propel any company, really,” says Brenner.
In TrueCar’s case, the company “wanted to change how cars are sold by showing buyers how much people have paid for similar cars – to give the customer the price right up front,” says Brenner. “No one was doing that.” So they started asking how they could.
They’d have to have a dealer network, first. What could they do to entice dealers to join a network they’ve never heard of? They would need a well-known partner that could funnel new business to the dealers.
TrueCar Finds its Partner
That’s how TrueCar zeroed in on a financial institution with a huge and loyal member base. The benefit to the financial institution was an increase in the conversion rate of one of its key product line - auto loans. Although members could buy a car anywhere, the benefits that TrueCar had lined up would be extremely appealing.
With the finance and insurance company relationship in hand, it wasn’t hard for TrueCar to get car dealers to sign on as certified dealers. Questions about traffic to the TrueCar website and the quality of leads – questions you’d expect dealers to ask – “were irrelevant” because of the good name of the financial partner. That partnership “becomes a closing tool.”
So how do you spot a potential partner? Brenner suggests brainstorming all your worst-case scenarios. If your biggest competitor partnered with another company, which partner could really hurt you? Which partner deal would you most dread hearing about? That’s the one you need to go after, as a type of pre-emptive strike, he says.
Brenner points to other recent deals as examples of how business development is key to catapulting sales.
Recent Successful Partnerships
There is the Uber-Expensify partnership, which created a new program called “Smart Rides.” Uber offers on-demand car transportation and Expensify offers expense tracking. Together, the companies offer their small to mid-sized client base the opportunity to better track travel expenses and itineraries by integrating them. Armed with travel itineraries, Uber can automatically connect travelers with rides from the airport or around town using Uber drivers. Expensify helps simplify travel expense tracking because all the information has been uploaded into the system.
“It’s a symbiotic relationship,” says Brenner, which helps lock users in. The convenience offered creates a barrier to exit that is good for both partners.
Or look at the Starbucks-Arizona State University (ASU) deal, which he calls a “smart partnership.” Starbucks launched the “Starbucks College Achievement Plan,” which is designed to provide employees who work 20 or more hours a week the opportunity to enroll tuition-free in ASU’s online degree program. If you qualify for admission, Starbucks will pay your tuition.
What’s in it for the two organizations? Brenner explains that Starbucks helps increase the overall education level of its employees, who are now more loyal to their employer. If they leave, they lose those free college courses. And ASU gets a captive audience and steady stream of students at a lower cost, since Starbucks provides tuition reimbursement.
Such strategic partnerships help increase sales opportunities, often exponentially. But the whole process is dependent on the involvement and support of the sales team, says Brenner. None of these deals could happen without a sales team.
About Bernie Brenner
Bernie Brenner is an entrepreneur and expert in strategic business development. He specializes in securing and expanding strategic partnerships and is a frequent speaker on business development (BD) to entrepreneurs and venture investors. He is the author of The Sumo Advantage, a #1 Amazon Best Seller and the host of PodcastOne’s ExtremeBizDev.
He is the co-founder and EVP of Business Development of TrueCar, Inc., a company focused on changing how cars are sold. Under Bernie’s direction, TrueCar secured more than 100 BD deals, including partnerships with USAA, American Express, Geico, Nationwide Insurance, Consumer Reports, and AAA.
TrueCar went public (NASDAQ:TRUE) in May of 2014. Bernie is also a partner at The Capital Factory, where he helps mentor early stage entrepreneurs and is passionate about supporting entrepreneurship in Austin, TX.
Previously, Bernie ran Business Development at Carfax, Inc., where he secured partnerships with Toyota Motor Sales, AutoTrader.com, Cars.com and many other giants in the auto industry. He was the CEO of PromiseMark, Inc., an Internet security and privacy company, which he founded in 1997 by partnering with Symantec, maker of Norton Antivirus, and with Aon Warranty Group. Bernie sold PromiseMark to a credit reporting agency in 2003. Currently, Bernie lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and three children.